“Flashman is back,” declared Labour leader Ed Miliband in that voice of his, like a sixth-form debating captain gargling frogspawn. He was referring to David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions and meant to imply that the Tory was a boorish, ill-mannered bully, riding roughshod over the finer feelings of his Parliamentary colleagues.
As usual, not-so-Red Ed got it all hopelessly wrong, because few men wouldn’t be secretly thrilled to be compared to Harry Paget Flashman, the Victorian soldier and adventurer. True, Flashman is a bully, a liar, a coward and a cad, but – and here’s the rub – he is also a quite phenomenal babe-magnet. In the pages of fiction only Don Juan and James Bond could hope to live up to Flashman’s prodigious sexual success. From prostitutes to princesses, Harry’s had ‘em all. He’s rutted merrily with Calcuttan dancing girls and squired Native American squaws; been ravaged by Ranvalona I, the savage queen of Madagascar; seduced Lillie Langtry (celebrated actress and mistress of Edward VII) and run through most of the Kama Sutra with Jind Kaur, the royal Maharani of Punjab. He once noted that his favourite lovers were Lakshmibai, Ci Xi and Lola Montez: "a Queen, an Empress, and the foremost courtesan of her time: I dare say I'm just a snob." Halfway through his life he counted up 478 conquests. And he was married.
Handsome Harry, that’s him puffing out his chest in the Bombardier beer adverts (though they’ve renamed him William Bedford): square-jawed, walrus-whiskered, sword a-dangling beside a thrust pelvis encased in the finest breeches since Colin Firth made the ladies faint as Darcy. Wearing the self-satisfied grin of a man who’s just spent the night with a grateful virgin or two…who wouldn’t want to be Flashman?
“Flashmanonce noted that his favourite lovers were Lakshmibai, Ci Xi and Lola Montez: "a Queen, an Empress, and the foremost courtesan of her time: I dare say I'm just a snob."
He was originally created by Thomas Hughes, in the insufferably preachy 1857 work Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Back then he was simply ‘Flashman’ and was the chief tormentor of the little squirts at Rugby School. It was the author George MacDonald Fraser who resurrected Flashman, bestowed the Christian names Harry and Paget upon him, gave him a lifespan (1822-1915) and sent him off to conquer the world of blood and thunder Victorian adventure fiction in an extraordinary series of cult novels.
The first of these, 1969's Flashman, introduced the central conceit: meticulously researched and stuffed with genuine historical figures and events, Fraser purported to have 'discovered' Flashman's papers in an antique tea chest in a Leicestershire salesroom, and presented himself as their editor rather than their author. The faux-scholarly style, complete with extensive factual footnotes and appendices, was sufficiently convincing that on publication in the USA, ten of 34 reviews took Flashman to be a real memoir of a soldier in the First Anglo-Afghan War.
They were fooled despite the uproarious comedy stemming from Fraser's second structural masterstroke: the great gag is that, though a risible coward wholly lacking in moral fibre, by a series of flukes, bluffs and coincidences, Flashman always ends up looking like a hero. There are thirteen novels in all and in most of them Flashy emerges with the girl(s), the swag and another medal for valour. Not that he doesn't suffer along the way. Over the course of the series Flashman becomes embroiled in virtually every military misadventure of the 19th Century, including the retreat from Kabul, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny and Custer's Last Stand at Little Bighorn.
Fraser's attention to period detail and his ability to conjure up a place and time ranks him alongside such great historical novelists as Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forrester. Frankly, nearly everything I know about 19th Century international affairs I've learned from the Flashman series which, given that they are ultimately a set of derring-do pastiches, is an odd admission to make. But another curious factor of Fraser's method is the internal dynamic whereby, since Flashman presents his own character at its very worst in these secret journals, we are inclined to believe him; and when he wanders from verifiable historical fact Fraser 'corrects' him in the footnotes. Before reading Flashman and the Dragon (1985), for example, I had never known of the enormity of China's Taiping Rebellion. It killed at least 20 million people: more deaths in combat than the First World War that followed a mere 50 years later.
“The great gag is that, though a risible coward wholly lacking in moral fibre, by a series of flukes, bluffs and coincidences, Flashman always ends up looking like a hero.”
Some of the novels are tough going. The brutal Flash for Freedom (1971) concerns the African-American slave trade and contains not only a stream of shocking scenes but also the highest density of the n-word of any book I've read. Fraser is utterly unsparing in his depiction of humanity at its basest. For all his anti-hero misdemeanours and crimes (which include rape and murder), most of the figures surrounding Flashman, from Ranavalona I to Otto von Bismarck, are far worse. All Flashy wants is to save his own skin and bed a few birds; his antagonists tend to want to flay everyone alive, either from a misguided sense of duty or simple psychopathy.
This might suggest that George MacDonald Fraser was something of a misanthrope. And indeed he may well have been; certainly he believed that Britain had gone to the dogs by the 1970s and then got progressively worse. During the decades before his death in 2006 he lived on the Blimp-friendly Isle of Man, from where he opposed the conversion to metric measurement and emitted, between Flashman novels, eye-watering Daily Mail tirades against political correctness. This is not to suggest that Fraser shared the views of his whoring, racist, sexist literary creation, more that he loathed the stifling conformity of the soft left, which he saw as crushing individual freedom of thought.
He was certainly idiosyncratic enough himself, his life-experiences having included being dangled by the ankles while under Japanese sniper fire in Burma; and mingling with the Hollywood A-list (he wrote numerous movie scripts including Octopussy and The Three Musketeers). But it is not clear that he matched Flashman's sexual success, nor that he employed that rogue's rather, well, direct methods. This from Flashman and the Dragon, when our hero finds himself alone with Yehanola, the Chinese emperor's concubine:
“If there's one thing that makes me randier than a badger it's an imperious little dolly-mop giving me orders with her tits out of her dress.... Her face set in anger, but before she could speak I applied the fond caress that I use to coax [my wife] when she's sulking – one hand to beneath the chin to pull the head back while you chew her mouth open, the other kneading her bouncers with passionate ardour. They can't stir, you see, and after a moment they don't want to.... I dropped her head and shoulders on the edge of the bed while holding the rest of her clear with a hand under either buttock, leaned forward in the approved firing position, and piled in, roaring like a Gorgon.”
This sort of activity is not, I suspect, what Ed Miliband had in mind when he compared the Prime Minister to Harry Paget Flashman, but those many thousands of us who have followed Flashy's amorous adventures with a mixture of horror and admiration, will never be able to see Mr Cameron in quite the same light again.
Andrew Nixon is editor of The Dabbler culture blog (www.thedabbler.co.uk).
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